Those bemoaning the current lack of female-led superhero movies probably feel entitled to lay some of the blame at the feet of 1984’s “Supergirl” however, although it was a box-office flop on its release, it’s by no means as bad as its reputation would have you believe.
Spinning off from the increasingly lacklustre Christopher Reeve “Superman” films, “Supergirl” takes us to Argo City, an inexplicably surviving fragment of Kryptonian civilisation living in an equally unexplained pocket dimension. Here we are introduced to Kara Zor-El (Helen Slater) and her melancholy artistic mentor Zaltar, played by Peter O’Toole. Having tired of the sterile, idyllic life in Argo City, Zaltar plans to leave and explore the universe outside, teasing Kara with mentions of Earth, Saturn and Venus. To further his art, Zaltar has borrowed the Omegahedron, a powerful energy source upon which Argo City depends for its survival but not, apparently, enough to have it properly guarded or kept securely.
When an accident results in the loss of the Omegahedron to the void, Kara leaps into Zaltar’s craft to recover it while Zaltar himself resigns himself to an eternity of imprisonment in the Phantom Zone.
The Omegahedron arrives on Earth and is found by Selena, a would-be witch who uses its tremendous power to amplify her own abilities, enslaving the local town and setting her sights on world domination. Kara arrives shortly afterwards and, finding she now has extraordinary powers, sets out as Supergirl to recover the Omegahedron and save Argo City.
Helen Slater makes a great Supergirl, playing her as a mixture of naïve ingénue and confident superhero with a peppy enthusiasm that sells the character even in the film’s more silly moments. Meanwhile, Faye Dunaway portrays the villainous Selena in all her full-on bat-shit crazy scenery-chewing glory, vamping her way through the film like she’s performing Shakespeare at an LSD-fuelled Renaissance Fair.
Perhaps “Supergirl” was a victim of the film’s biggest disappointment: for one brief, shining moment it teases the audience with the promise of sending Peter O’Toole’s Zaltar to Earth, raising the prospect of a weary, lethargic super-powered Peter O’Toole drinking and smoking his way across the globe, defeating villains with a glass in one hand and a phlegmatic anecdote on his lips. Raising our hopes only to dash them is one thing, but to do it twice is just cruel.
Another great Peter, Peter Cook, appears as Selena’s cast-aside former lover, part-time warlock and teacher at the girl’s boarding school although these intertwining plot elements never really amount to anything and he’s left glaring from the side-lines for most of the film, while the lion’s share of the comedy shtick is left to Selena’s sidekick Bianca, played by Brenda Vaccaro.
Although originally scheduled for a cameo, Christopher Reeve was unable to make a planned appearance as Superman (his absence is explained in a cough and you’ll miss it radio report), so the job of linking “Supergirl” to the rest of the “Superman” films falls to Marc McClure’s Jimmy Olsen. The writers were obviously aware of how weak this link is, so Supergirl’s new best friend turns out to be Lucy Lane, the younger sister of Lois Lane which if nothing else proves it’s a small universe after all.
The most interesting thing about “Supergirl” is that in retrospect, you can see that it was a genuine attempt to make a superhero film for and about girls. Unfortunately, its sensibilities are firmly anchored in a kind of Enid Blyton, “Famous Five” style femininity, which had grown outdated even in 1984. So we have Kara discovering her powers in a montage which involves flowers, ponies and rabbits while her alter-ego Linda Lee enrols herself at a boarding school where she has to save a new friend from some Pippi Longstocking-style bullies. The action set pieces are less about brute strength and power and more about problem solving and cleverness, including an odd homage to classic 1950’s sci-fi classic “Forbidden Planet”. Rather than money, power and real estate, the plot of the film centres around magic and boyfriends (Selena and Supergirl go head to head over a hunky gardener played with a dreamy-eyed gormlessness by Hart Bochner). It’s a clichéd checklist of girls’ interests but at least they made the effort and, on the plus side, I dread to think what kind of misguidedly ‘sexy’ Supergirl costume would be used nowadays to market the film to current superhero fan boys.
Speaking of modern, dark, gritty interpretations, there is a tonally awkward and out of place scene that sticks out like a sore thumb in this otherwise bubblegum pop movie: a confrontation with a pair of would-be rapist truckers (one of whom is played by a young Matt Frewer) shortly after Supergirl has arrived on Earth. While the whole thing is played for Supergirl power-demonstrating laughs, the lack of any kind of discomfiture from the truckers about their blatant intentions makes for uneasy viewing, suggesting their behaviour is ‘just one of those things’. Shame on you, 1984!
Despite its problems, it’s a generally wholesome, harmless superhero adventure with some decent, if patchy, special effects work and, if nothing else, far far better than the “Super” film that followed it: 1987’s “Superman IV: The Quest For Peace”.